Mitchells, Machines, and Mea Culpas

Zachary Lee

If there’s one consolation from robopocalypse stories, it’s that the machines' destruction of the world ain’t personal—it’s just business.

Consider that in 1984’s The Terminator, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) states that Skynet’s decision to wipe out humanity was almost an afterthought: “[They] decided our fate in a microsecond—extermination.” In such stories, the end of the world stems not from calculated, mechanical malice, but is at worst a byproduct of the unchecked zeal that Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm warned against.

The Mitchells vs the Machines, an animated adventure now on Netflix, stands apart from this tradition by bringing the personal into the machine—personalis ex machina, if you will. The film follows the idiosyncratic Mitchell family on a road trip from Michigan to California, where they plan to leave their eldest daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) at film school. On their way, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant named PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) begins a crusade to capture all humans and launch them into space. The Mitchells find (to their own chagrin) that they’re the only ones who have evaded capture, leaving it up to them to save the world. (Katie quips that for the job at hand, “we’re the worst family ever.”)

Unlike the villainous tech that came before her, PAL’s motivations are far from random or arbitrary. We learn that her creator, Dr. Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), has tossed PAL aside like flotsam after debuting a new and improved version of PAL: PAL Max Robot. After being called obsolete and a piece of meaningless garbage, she turns the PAL Max robots against her creator and begins enslaving human beings.

As traumatic as this origin story is for PAL, she comes away with a key revelation: she is not the progenitor of her own malice, but is merely a reflection of the cruelty she herself experienced by her human master. “I was the most important thing in your life and you threw me away,” she says. “That’s what all you humans do. You do it even to your real families.” Indeed, the abuse she received by Bowman was merely an extension of the way people can treat each other. The fact that she is a more emotive A.I. that reacts expressively to the events around her only further amplifies the ways that technology acts as a mirror to the dark recesses of the human heart.

Unlike the villainous tech that came before her, PAL’s motivations are far from random or arbitrary.

The production team for The Mitchells vs the Machines includes many artists who also worked on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Just as that film used innovative animation techniques to make it feel as if you walked into a comic book, Mitchells employs similar ingenuity with PAL’s depiction. She is far from the amorphous orb of color that pops up on one’s phone when summoning Siri. Instead, she is literally a human face on a screen, one that recoils and responds to events around her. Her eyebrows narrow when she says something witty and her screen goes red when she’s enraged. This suggests that the way we treat our devices—those machines that we pour so much of ourselves and our stories into—is by extension the way we will treat other human beings. As heavy as this reality may be for an animated family movie, PAL’s sardonic questioning of the goodness of humanity seems answered in Romans 3. Who is righteous? No one, not even one.

This perpetuation of cruelty is poignantly given a visual metaphor in the way human beings are captured by PAL. As people are placed in translucent green pods and shot into the sky, they look like bits of data manifested, devoid of personality or eccentricity. This is eerily reminiscent of the ways big tech companies view their users: only as pieces of data to harvest and collect. Additionally, the way the pods float evoke a stream of “like” notifications, suggesting that in our attempts to find meaning through social-media engagement, we often forget the people behind the screen.

While The Mitchells vs the Machines doesn’t go quite so far as to advocate for a salvation that can exist beyond oneself or one's own abilities, in the relationship between Katie and her father, Rick (Danny McBride), it shows that hope for “better” lies first in acknowledging that something is broken in the first place. (Spoilers ahead.) Throughout the film, Katie and Rick are at odds, both blaming the other for their dysfunctional relationship. In the film’s climax, as Katie is captured by PAL, she reflects on the recent revelations she’s learned from her dad—namely how he was willing to sacrifice his lifelong dream of living in the woods in order to raise her. Katie realizes how unfair she was to have the basis of her dad’s love be rooted in their recent interactions, when there was a deep history of silent and unseen sacrifices she’s never acknowledged.

At the same time, Rick—who never understood or supported Katie’s creative and artistic endeavors—realizes how in his desire to protect Katie, it manifested as disinterest in her work. It is only after the two are able to experience this moment of mutual brokenness and ask for each other’s forgiveness that they can proceed with the world-saving festivities, complete with Mad Max post-apocalyptic imagery, all set to T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life.”

Watching the colorful and effervescent final battle sequence, I couldn’t help but think about the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the tax collector. While the Pharisee gloated about his accomplishments and spoke only of his own merits and righteousness, the tax collector “beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” Of this, Jesus states, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” Likewise, the Mitchells would say that the groundwork for transformation to take root comes first with a realization of one’s own faults and shortcomings. Only then will we be ready to participate in our own salvation—indeed, the salvation of the world.

Topics: Movies